Prison System Chains Women in Childbirth

In many places around the country, it's still legal to keep incarcerated women shackled while they go through labor.

By Michelle Chen Jul 20, 2010

When a pregnant woman enters labor, every fiber in her body surges toward the final, intense push to bring a life into the world. But there may be one thing holding her back. Chains. In many places around the country, it’s still legal to keep incarcerated women shackled while they go through labor. NPR reported recently on prison policies that keep incarcerated pregnant women chained up or tied down while they’re in labor or even delivering a baby. Jennifer Farrar, a young mother who was locked up for forging checks and entered Cook County Jail in Illinois when she was nearly seven months pregnant. When it came time to go to the hospital, her hands and legs were chained, and her limbs were tied together by another chain surrounding her pregnant belly. Over the next several hours she agonized in labor under the watch of a correctional officer and the weight of her restraints; her legs were freed right before she gave her final push. Farrar, who is part of a class action lawsuit against the county, recalled: "The doctor and the nurse, … they were telling the officer, is this necessary, you know? Where is she going to go? She’s in labor you know." It’s impossible to talk about the barbarism of this practice without shedding light on who these women are. The female prison population has soared in recent years–mostly due to convictions for nonviolent offenses. At disproportionate rates women of color have been removed from their families communities in droves. Many have grown up in foster care or abusive homes, and may as adults go through pregnancy and parenthood constantly under some kind of state surveillance. This could include not just the isolation of prison walls, but also the watchful eye of child protective services and in some cases, bodily oppression during the birth itself. As we reported last year, the practice of shackling women during childbirth has come under increasing scrutiny from the human rights community. New York banned the practice last year, delivering a hard-won victory to activists led by the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project and other groups. Several other states have moved to ban the practice as well. Tina, who was incarcerated at New York’s Rikers Island and Bedford Hills while pregnant with her seventh child, gave this testimony to New York lawmakers last year:

When I arrived at the hospital and was about to give birth to my son the doctor who was to deliver my child requested shackles be removed. The correctional officer released one of my legs. I remained tethered to the gurney during labor and child birth and when my son was to be held in my arms I only held him in one arm because that was all I was allowed by the officer who witnessed the birth of my son. I was not a flight risk! I felt dehumanized and unworthy to be treated in such a way. Regardless of the reason why I was arrested I was not a flight risk. Women remember the births of the babies for the rest of their lives and children ask to understand the how and why they came to be in the world. This is the story I have told my son when he asked about his birth for all mothers and fathers what story did you tell your children of their birth?

Anyone who hasn’t given birth could scarcely imagine the psychological and physical strain of childbirth. Even harder to imagine is the humiliation of being forced to endure that trauma strapped down in wrenching captivity. But it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of those responsible for imposing these policies won’t ever have to trouble themselves with childbirth, much less experience being shackled for any reason. Maybe they live in neighborhoods where the specter of the criminal justice system is confined to the morning paper, and where the nexus of poverty, racism and imprisonment is safely out of sight. And that’s why we need special laws to tell the prison system it’s not actually a good thing to put a woman in labor in chains. In a more privileged world, society enshrines motherhood and the birth cycle in nurturing admiration. But maternal honor does not extend across the prison gates. For the women inside, nothing is sacred. Photo: Summers via flickr